Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Recover or else?

This morning I read this news story with a mixture of exasperation, anger and fear. The British government, having already made life close to unbearable for disabled people, are now turning their attention to another extremely vulnerable group: those with mental illnesses. It seems that spending 15% of the welfare budget on the sick and disabled is unsustainable (but apparently spending 21% on low income workers and 42% on the elderly isn’t a problem). So government ministers have come up with the idiotic brilliant idea of forcing people with depression or anxiety to attend therapy, and stopping their benefits if they’re unable to.

In response to this article I dashed off several quick objections to this proposal:

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It’s proven very popular on Twitter, having been retweeted over 200 times now, but now I’d like to explain these points properly.

1) You can’t force people into therapy and then expect them to get anything out of it. Whether it’s cognitive behavioural therapy, talking therapy or anything else, the individual has to be willing and able to undergo what can often be a traumatic and upsetting experience. Forcing someone who isn’t ready to go through this would be highly counter-productive, exacerbating the problem and further alienating the ill person.

2) No-one will trust a therapist who they know is focused on declaring them fit to work, come what may. Just as you wouldn’t automatically trust someone you met on the street, you don’t automatically trust a therapist. A relationship has to be built, slowly and cautiously, and trust must be earned. If you know that the person you’re supposed to be baring your soul to isn’t focused on what’s best for you but only on telling the government that you can work, that trust will be non-existent. In addition, the basic principle underlying psychotherapy is that clients give voluntary (ie not forced), informed consent; would therapists even be allowed to treat patients who attended under duress?

3) In most areas there’s a long wait for talking therapies and CBT, often a year or more. Are the government going to conjure therapists out of a hat as though they’re well-qualified rabbits? When funding for mental health services have already been drastically cut, how can thousands more people be forced into a system that’s already bursting at the seams?

4) “We know that depression and anxiety are treatable conditions”. Wrong – they *can* be treatable conditions. There are all kinds of depression and anxiety and some of them are permanent. Whilst most of the time depression and anxiety can be transient illnesses, passing with the right treatment, for some they are merely manageable with treatment and don’t go away. Being forced to attend further therapy is only going to make these illnesses worse.

5) “Cognitive behavioural therapies work and they get people stable again”. Wrong again – they *can* work. For some people CBT is an utter waste of time, as I can attest. There is no panacea for depression and anxiety, no one-size-fits-all cure. If there was then we wouldn’t be having this discussion!

6) Most of the welfare budget actually goes to the working poor through tax credits. Instead of targeting the ill and vulnerable yet again, why not legislate for companies to pay a living wage instead of having to top up incomes via welfare? As I wrote at the start of this post, only 15% of the welfare budget is paid to those who are sick and/or disabled. Why aren’t the government ensuring workers are paid a proper living wage, instead of having to pay 21% to people who work but are paid so little that they’re still impoverished? It couldn’t possibly be because vulnerable groups are easier to target, could it? Or perhaps ministers have fooled themselves into believing their own “scroungers” rhetoric.

7) Oh and let’s not forget the billions of pounds lost through legal tax avoidance, why not close that loophole while they’re at it? The Telegraph article states that “Estimates based on government figures suggest the state spends up to £1.4 billion a year – more than £3.5 million per day – on ESA for these claimants with mental health issues”. But other government figures have shown that over £5.1 billion a year is lost through tax evasion. The government is targeting the vulnerable instead of those who think they’re too good to pay taxes.

Many ill and disabled people have died within 6 weeks of being declared fit to work by ATOS, the company contracted by the UK government to reduce disability payments. How many more will die if this ill-considered idea is actually put into practice? Sadly we may soon find out, as pilot schemes are being rolled out in the near future.

One last thing. You are only one illness, one accident, away from becoming disabled yourself. 1 in 4 people in the UK will have a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Although this government’s barbaric policy of targeting the ill and vulnerable may not affect you today, there’s no guarantee that it won’t tomorrow.

Trigger warning: suicide

Last week this image caused a bit of upset on Twitter:

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It’s from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a non-profit organisation that seeks to understand and prevent suicide through research, education and advocacy. They also aim to help those affected by suicide. It seems to be a good organisation with good intentions, but out of context their image (originally posted in 2012) raised some hackles in the British mental health community. Why? Because it removes the focus from the suicidal person and it seems to feed into the “suicide is selfish” idea. This belief is unfortunately common. Killing yourself is often seen as selfish, cowardly and weak. It’s yet another part of the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

I recently shared this image (from Boggle the Owl)  on my blog:

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The response was overwhelming. So many people contacted me to say that it had made them consider suicide and/or mental illness in a different light. I’m so glad, because it did the same for me when I first saw it. Despite having been mentally ill since my early teens I too had bought into the “suicide is selfish” rhetoric, and realising that my suicidal urges didn’t make me selfish was a huge step. It lightened the load. Because in my experience, that’s what suicidal urges are, an enormously heavy burden that weighs you down. And it’s one that is incredibly difficult to he honest about; during my most recent crisis, in February/March this year, I hid my increasingly suicidal thoughts and feelings from almost everyone. The previous times I had felt suicidal, and the one time I seriously attempted to kill myself, absolutely no-one knew.

There’s a lot of ignorance about suicide. Firstly there’s the idea that people who talk about killing themselves will never do it, when in fact most people who kill themselves have told at least one person that they want to do so. Then there’s the suggestion that telling someone you’re suicidal is just attention-seeking. Can you imagine that? Your world has shrunk to the confines of your own mental torment, your existence is so unbearable that you’re considering ending it, you pluck up the courage to tell someone how you’re feeling because you know you need help, you’re drowning in pain and BAM! You’re dismissed as attention-seeking.

Equally as bad is “You owe it to your family/friends/hamster to stay alive” and “It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. I’ve had mental illnesses since my early teens – what’s temporary about that? While for some people depression and suicidal thoughts may be relatively fleeting, for many they are a recurring or constant problem. Imagine 2, 5, 10, 20 or more years battling your own mind, your mental pain, every single day. Or maybe it’s physical pain and illness that you’re fighting against. While holding down a job, bringing up children, maintaining a facade of normality for the outside world. It’s exhausting. And being told that you “owe it” to other people to keep yourself alive? No. Just no. That’s implying that they are more important than you, that their feelings trump yours and that your anguish doesn’t matter. All that matters is how your death will make others feel.

Lastly there’s the nasty sentiment that people who jump in front of trains or off motorway bridges are just a selfish inconvenience to others. Let’s think about that. Another human being, someone who loves and is loved just like you, has found their life to be so unbearable that they saw no alternative to ending it. Their pain was so immense that it blocked out all other thoughts. And you’re complaining because your journey has been delayed?! That’s the true act of selfishness, to me. Seeing someone else’s pain, suffering and death only in the context of how it affects you.

So no. Suicide isn’t a selfish act. It may be a desperate one but it is not selfish.

For further understanding please read these incredible posts from BipolarBlogger: Count no blessings: How a suicidal mind works and Ten things not to say to a suicidal person.

If you are suicidal or know someone who is and you need support, please check out the “Want to talk to someone?” bar at the top of the page.

Gratitudes

Life is difficult at the moment, for a number of reasons. DH is still struggling with his bipolar disorder; his psychiatrist is great but he hasn’t found the right balance of medication yet. So I never know who I’m going to wake up with – my husband, or a man who’s as excited as a small child at Christmas, or  a man so depressed and morose that he can barely move let alone speak. Two of these three options are exhausting to live with and look after.

My mental health, never great at the best of times, is suffering because I’m focusing on DH and the children. I know the aeroplane oxygen analogy; you take care of yourself before others, because you’re not use to anyone if you can’t breathe. But I am the only one holding things together right now and I’m damned if I’m going to let DH suffocate in his illness. Nor am I going to neglect the children purely to look after myself. I’m managing. My back is as problematic as ever, particularly when I forget my walking stick. Money is ridiculously tight. My bingeing is out of control.

But I have so much to be grateful for. Yes, life is stressful and tiring right now but I’m alive. The children are alive and DH is alive. We’re relatively healthy and have access to understanding and helpful doctors. My parents and sister are wonderfully supportive and helpful, as are DH’s family. I have a couple of fantastic friends, and loads of good friends on Twitter.

I have 2 wonderful, funny, kind, sweet and healthy children (even if their bickering does drive me crazy sometimes!). We have a roof over our heads and food to eat; we live in a nice area with easy access to the sea and the Downs. The weather is temperate, the people are friendly and DD’s school is amazing.

I have so much to be thankful for that I should really focus on the positive aspects of life, instead of the negative. I am lucky to have all the things that I do when so many in the world have to manage without.

Changing minds

This post is one I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but I’ve finally got round to it today after seeing the #ChangingMinds tag on Twitter. The question posed was what do you wish more people understood about mental illness – so here’s what I wish more of my friends and family understood.

We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. Some of us just aren’t as healthy as others.

1 in 4 people will have a mental illness during their lifetime. It’s that common.

If you ask how I am and I say I’m fine, I’m probably lying. But don’t push it because if I really want you to know I will tell you.

Just because you know someone else with the same diagnosis as me doesn’t mean that I’m capable of the same things. Your friend with anxiety and depression can go to social gatherings; I struggle to.

No, cyclothymia isn’t “pretend bipolar”.

Most people with a mental illness look and act just like everyone else.

Anti-depressants aren’t a bad thing. They can be life-savers, literally. They’re not a magic cure though and it can take time to find the right ones.

The same is true for any kind of psychiatric drug.

Also exercise. Although it can be helpful to some people, it can be detrimental or just unhelpful to others.

People with a mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators.

It can be frightening, fighting for control of your own mind every day.

If I drop off the radar for a while, it’s almost certainly because I’m having a hard time and nothing to do with you.

The same is true if I cancel plans to meet at the last minute.

Some people recover from mental illness. For many it’s a lifelong condition.

Not recovering from a mental illness doesn’t mean you’re not fighting it hard enough, or that you’re wallowing in it. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak either.

Feeling suicidal isn’t weak or selfish. Killing yourself isn’t weak or selfish.

Self-harming, in whatever form it takes, isn’t weak or selfish. It’s a coping mechanism when nothing else can help.

Talking about mental illness and sharing experiences can be really interesting.

If you’re sympathetic to someone with a physical illness, you should be sympathetic to someone with a mental illness. It’s just as painful, often more so.

Some days just getting out of bed or leaving the house is a struggle. That’s not the same as being lazy.

Mental health services are having their funding cut across the board. It’s never been easy to access help, in some cases it’s now nearly impossible.

If you don’t understand something, it’s better to ask than to make assumptions.

I could write many more of these but I won’t – please feel free to add your own though, and please do look at #ChangingMinds. I’d like to leave you with this:

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(From/by Boggle the Owl).

Sam Candour:

This is a great post and this discussion definitely needs to happen within mental health services.

Originally posted on purplepersuasion:

I feel that in writing this post, which has been brewing for a long time, I am saying something that some might see as controversial. So let me start by making something clear. This post is not intended to criticise the work of the big charities – I am a proud member of Mind and Rethink Mental Illness and have undertaken both paid and voluntary work for both organisations. I have also volunteered for Time to Change and made a TTC pledge at last year’s Mind Media Awards. A huge amount of good work is being done on a daily basis to challenge public perceptions of mental health and to normalise discussions of the topic. Time to Change is entirely right to highlight just how peculiar it is that mental health stigma continues to loom so large given that a quarter of the population is thought experience some form of…

View original 1,074 more words

To my children

I know that you may never see this, but I need to write it even so. Because you are my wonderful, funny, loving children and I feel that I owe you this.

At the time of writing you, DD, are just a couple of weeks away from your fifth birthday; you, DS, are two and a half. You’re both loud, boisterous, confident and happy children and I love watching you play together. Your peals of laughter and the tenderness you show each other melt my heart; so too does the way you snuggle up together with a storybook. I love you both more than I can ever say, and more than you can ever imagine (and yes DD, even further than the edge of space).

At the moment Daddy and I are having a tough time because we’re both a bit poorly. We’re both a bit grumpy at times, Daddy often can’t play with you as much as you would like and I’m not as good at funny games as I used to be. You’re both very accepting of this but I know you don’t really understand. And why should you? You know that I always have a sore back but how could you possibly understand the vagaries of mental illness?

I can’t figure out a way to explain to you what bipolar means, or that Daddy’s medicines keep changing because his psychiatrist is trying to find the right balance to bring him back to himself. I don’t want to tell you that sometimes medicines can make you feel worse and not better, and that that’s why Daddy has barely left the house for the last fortnight. You don’t yet need to know about anxiety, or panic attacks that are sometimes so bad that Daddy has to shut himself in the bedroom for a while so you don’t see him shaking and crying for no apparent reason.

If this was all that was wrong, if you had a mentally healthy mother, perhaps I wouldn’t feel so bad. But having to look after Daddy all the time as well as trying to stay bright and cheerful for you is taking its toll.  My cyclothymia, usually fairly well controlled by anti-depressants, is flaring and my moods are all over the place. I can be happy one day, one hour, one moment, and cast into the depths of despair the next. It makes taking care of two lively children very difficult at times and I hope you never realise just how much I sometimes want to scream at you to leave me alone because your questions, bickering and noisy games make me want to claw off my own skin. I’m deeply ashamed of feeling this way and I worry that occasionally you might have an inkling of what I’m thinking, that you might catch a glimpse of the distress I’m trying so hard to hide from you.

I know that I’m not a dreadful mother and that you could be in a far worse situation (and that many children are). On the whole you’re happy, bright and playful children who are capable of making me laugh until the tears roll down my face. I know you love each other (even when you’re arguing) and that you know that Daddy and I love you very much. I just can’t help wishing that things were different, and feeling guilty because they’re not.

The day’s not far off when “Daddy’s just not feeling well” and “I’m a bit poorly today” won’t be enough of an excuse. DD, already you’re questioning why Daddy is ill so often and soon I’m going to have to work out how to explain a little bit more of what’s really happening. But I want you both to stay ignorant of this reality a little while longer. I don’t want you to know that there are some things that can’t be fixed, and that having a kiss and a cuddle doesn’t always make everything better. I want to protect you from this difficult truth, because once you learn it your innocent trust and faith in the omnipotence of your parents will be forever tarnished. And I’m not ready for that just yet, so please let us carry on this deception a while longer. I love you both, always.

Mummy.

Not all men!

Recently there seems to have been a lot more discussion of feminism, sexism and misogyny online than usual. This is partly due to stories in the press; these include the trial of Oscar Pistorius for killing his girlfriend, the rapist Ched Evans reportedly being offered a £3m contract with Sheffield United Football Club before he’s even released from prison and the murder of numerous individuals by Elliot Rodgers after posting hate-filled and misogynistic videos online.

It’s also due to more and more women speaking out about their experiences. The Everyday Sexism Project has shocked a lot of people, featuring as it does the uncomfortable, unpleasant and often harrowing experiences of millions of women and girls across the world. In addition to this, several recent hashtags on Twitter have also been eye-opening for many – I suggest you have a look at #Grabbed and #WhyIDidntReport in particular.

According to the World Health Organisation over a third of women (35% to be exact) worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. A third. In some countries girls are more likely to be raped than they are to attend school; whatever country you live in I can pretty much guarantee that you know at least one woman, probably more, who has suffered rape, sexual assault or physical violence.

When I started university I shared a flat with 4 other women. Of the 5 of us, aged just 18, 2 of us had been raped and 1 had been sexually abused by a family member. And we’re not unusual. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in England and Wales an average of 85,000 women are raped every year while over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. Of course, these figures are only for those cases where the victim reported the attack; it is widely understood that there are many more cases that go unreported, as this well-known graphic shows:

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In addition to this, 2 women per week in the UK are murdered by their male partner; in the first 4 months of 2014 over 50 women in the UK had been killed by men. That’s one every 2.5 days, roughly. In addition to this there’s the harassment – being groped, having comments made about our appearance, verbal abuse when a man’s advances are declined. It’s not just adult women who experience this either; a survey for Girl Guiding UK found that 70% of girls aged 13 and over report sexual harassment at school or college.

So why am I writing about all of this again? It’s because I’m increasingly seeing the phrase “Not all men!” cropping up in discussions about male violence against women. It seems that many are insulted by the perceived implication that all men are violent, evil, rapists and murderers. It’s those people that I really want to read this post. Because you see, when we’re talking about issues like male violence and I refer to “men” (and obviously I can only speak for myself) I’m not saying that all men are the same. That would be ridiculous. What I’m doing is referring to men as a sociological group, in the same way that I might refer to the middle-class or the white population. And men, as a class, are a threat to women, as a class. What I’m not saying is that any individual man is a threat. With me so far? Good.

When women talk about instances of misogyny, their experiences of rape, sexual assault and harassment, the “not all men” should be implicit. Obviously not all men rape, assault, grope or harrass women – do we really have to say it every single time? Seriously? Because the fact is, although the men who abuse women are the minority, they are the ones under discussion. Not the good guys. And if we have to qualify every single discussion of misogyny and abuse with “Not all men” for fear of offending someone, then the discussion may well stall and be stifled. And it’s a discussion that needs to be had by everyone, whatever their gender.

Some men find it hard not to feel personally insulted when “men as a class” are being discussed. I get that, I really do. I sometimes feel the same when I see discussions among the trans* community about how they’re treated by cis people, or discussions by people of colour about their experiences at the hands of white people. But do you know what? It’s a group of people relating their experiences at the hands of the dominant group as a class. It’s not an attack on me personally. Similarly when we’re discussing misogyny, abuse and male violence against women, it’s not an attack on any of the good guys either. So please stop yelling “Not all men!'” and join in the conversation instead.

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